Mescaline-mystical mindfuck Beyond the Black Rainbow could announce a new subgenre: glacial horror. The movie has the booming synths of a John Carpenter score and the primary-color lighting scheme of some Dario Argento classics. But this dystopic, retro-headed science-fiction film—characters in the credits include “mutant” and “sentionaut”—moves at the pace of a mind on powerful hallucinogenics, as though it can’t move forward because it’s so fascinated by the objects in its field of vision. Like last year’s impressionistic Amer, director Panos Cosmatos’s feature debut reduces cinema to its basic elements: to the image, the implication, the general feeling. And that feeling is one of tremendous apprehension.
In this long, barely sensical nightmare, Michael Rogers plays Barry, administrator at an institute that promotes “serenity through technology” and holds prisoner Elena (Eva Allen), a “very sick girl” who cries instead of talking and appears to possess strange psychic superpowers that the organization neutralizes with a throbbing energy crystal. (The captivity looks very influenced by THX 1138.) Interrogations, murders, and kidnappings ensue. But the story—or, its emotional undercurrent—is told as much through soundscapes as through words and images; a persistent electro-drone runs under the film, mimicking (if not setting) the storytelling pace and fulfilling the fictional organization’s aforementioned mission statement: there is bliss in the movie’s hypnotism, tranquility to discover through its technological aesthetic.
Set specifically in 1983, the movie is at once forward-looking but also old-fashioned: magic crystals notwithstanding, the technology is all tape machines and flickering low-res monitors. At the risk of being too reductive, I think the movie works best as a bat shit allegory for adolescence; like many, especially those who came of age in the 70s and 80s, Cosmatos seems at once nostalgic for the objects of his youth (cassettes!) but happily past the years in which he used them. (The movie is as trippy as Enter the Void, but, at a Q&A, the director said he hasn’t “really done any drugs since high school.”) There’s a lot of rebirth imagery in Black Rainbow, a lot of moving through cramped orifices and emerging; escaping confinement; getting to places where “crystals” can no longer suppress your God-given, misunderstood talents; and defying and defeating sinister authority figures. The movie becomes, in a subtle way, also an elemental allegory for the Reagan years (suggested by the president’s appearance on a monitor), capturing the mood of a generation seeking less to cast off the tyranny of their parents (like every generation) than that of their elected leaders. Of course, whether or not this is what Cosmatos intended is tough to say. After a recent screening, an audience member pleaded with him, “can you help me to understand better?” Cosmatos smirked, then deadpanned, “I don’t think I can.”
The last festival screening of Beyond the Black Rainbow is tonight at 11:30 p.m. More info here.